It was the same with golf. Never having held a club, I can at least follow the game and thoroughly enjoy the telecast on the sports channels, courtesy my friend Krishan Katyal, who pulled out his gear one lazy Sunday afternoon and initiated me into the basics of the game.
A tea taster for many years, Krishan has been a good teacher on other occasions as well. About six years ago when I was doing a story on Dolly Roy's tea boutique in south Calcutta, I called Krishan for some help. He waxed eloquent on the subtleties and nuances of the subject which is vast and intricate and we agreed that it is no less interesting and evolved than the subject of wine.
Uncannily, in the last four odd years, Krishan has received about as many invitations to visit Australian vineyards, give talks on the many parallels between the two subjects, taste their wines from a tea taster's point of view, and on his return from these trips he has regaled me with many anecdotes over not tea and not wine but another wonderful creation ' single malt.
So when another friend, Rupinder Singh, invited me to a wine tasting session with a view to getting an update on some of the wines being made in the country in an industry which is growing in leaps and bounds, Krishan had to be there with us.
Rupinder had everything laid out ' the right glasses, the white wines chilled to the right degree, the reds not chilled and because it was a winter afternoon the room temperature was close enough to being what is recommended for reds ' and under Krishan's guidance the tasting began. I must confess that I am something of a philistine in these matters. And then there was a lot to learn about how to appreciate the bouquet, how to let a wine 'breathe' in the bottle and other finer points.
We were tasting mainly wines made by Champagne Indage Ltd (formerly Indage India Ltd), established in 1982 and at present domestic market leaders. They have about 16 varieties of which we tried about a dozen ' obviously very small quantities of each but it all added up ' and although my palate is untrained, most of the wines went down easily and even at the end there was no hint of heaviness or acidity.
The general feeling ' there were five of us in all ' was that among the red wines, Ivy, Chantilli and Riviera were recommendable varieties in that order of preference (personally I liked the Chantilli best) and among the white wines, the Riviera and Vin Ballet (which is made with a blend of an ancient Indian grape variety called Arkavat and Ugni Blanc grapes). Maquise De Pompadour, a sparkling wine which has established itself as a frontrunner over the years and is exported as well, was the best in that category. Chateau Indage is the umbrella name for all these varieties.
Other major players in the country's burgeoning industry are Grover Vineyards which was established in 1988 north of Bangalore near the Nandi Hills, and Sula Wines whose vineyards occupy 300 acres near Nasik, about 120 km north of Mumbai.
A recent issue of Decanter magazine rated La Reserve, a Grover Vineyards wine, as the best red amongst the New World Wines. The company has grown 10-fold since it began.
Sula, which sold its first bottle in the year 2000, sells over a million bottles in a year including a sparkling wine, a Cabernet Shiraz, a Sauvignon Blanc and a blush Zinfandel. The wine industry in the country is experiencing a 20 to 25 per cent growth each year, three times that of Indian Made Foreign Liquor such as beer, whisky, vodka and rum.
There is a rush of local entrepreneurs and foreign firms to tap the domestic market as well as global interest in New World Wines. No wonder the Indian wine industry is looking to place its products on the shelves of supermarkets in Europe and the US.
But this is only a renaissance of sorts. The Sahyadri Valley in Maharashtra where Champagne Indage has vineyards was producing wine centuries ago, the finest of which found its way to the court of emperor Shahjahan. Fine wine was an interest with the Mughals, as was their cuisine and there is plenty of compatibility between wine and Indian food.
International wine experts recommend that it is time consumers tried wine with curries ' Indian and Southeast Asian ' and the Chateau Indage red wines ' Ivy as well as Chantilli ' go well with our red meat curries, such as Rogan Josh.
Our wealth of coastal seafood also can be washed down by a variety of wines such as the Ivy White which suits tandoori fish and chicken as well.
The growing acceptability of wine drinking is visible all around; it is deemed to be healthier than spirits as well. And although still not in global reckoning like other New World Wines, the future looks bright.
Pictures by Rashbehari Das. Courtesy: Starstruck